Written by Alissa Cruz

In the government data world, mixed among buzz words such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and business intelligence (BI), new terms like Federal Data Strategy, open data, the President’s Management Agenda (PMA), and chief data officer (CDO) are front and center.

Recently, the Center for Organizational Excellence (COE), Inc. attended the GovDATAx summit focused on unleashing data for the public good. During this summit, over 25 government, industry, and academic leaders discussed the importance of data-centric governance and evidence-based decision making, among several other topics. The timing of this meeting coincides nicely with President Trump’s signing of the OPEN Government Data Act earlier in the year. The act, Section 2 of the Foundations for Evidence-based Policymaking Act, requires that government agencies publish their data in a machine-readable format as well as appoint a CDO. And while the CDO role is not new, especially in the private sector (think Capital One and Yahoo!), for many government agencies, it is a new role that did not exist prior to the passing of the OPEN Act.

The mandate of the act requires that someone be appointed to the role, not necessarily that the CDO be the only role the person plays. This, along with financial and/or resource constraints, has led some agencies to assign this role to another CXO (e.g., the CIO or CTO), which may be a disservice to the agency in the long run.

While complementary, CIO and CDO are truly distinct and have differing priorities. A CIO’s priority is data security and infrastructure, whereas a CDO’s focus is on operationalizing and using the data to solve problems and inform decision making. One individual wearing dual hats isn’t sustainable or realistic. For one, an existing CIO who has now been assigned CDO duties may view the corresponding responsibilities as “Things I’ll get to when/if I have the time after my CIO duties.” He or she may simply not have the bandwidth to take on the time-consuming, yet important duties as CDO. Further, as a CIO, he or she may not have the empathy needed to appreciate the challenges and problems a CDO has to address and solve for the agency (and vice versa).

The CDO should have a direct reporting relationship with the CIO—it is important that they each have empathy for the problem the other is trying to solve. However, their responsibilities are distinct as outlined in the figure below:


As members of a CDO Council (established by the act), CDOs will also:

  • Establish government-wide best practices for data use, protection, distribution, and generation.
  • Promote data sharing across agencies.
  • Collaborate on best practices for improving data access, collection, and use.

But perhaps the most important role for CDOs under the passing of the OPEN Government Data Act is their responsibility in maximizing the usefulness and benefits of government data by making it as open as possible. A Data Coalition blog post sums it up nicely: “In the end, CDOs will not just be Chief Information Officers under a different name. They will be the sentinels of quality, accurate and complete agency data and, hopefully, shift the culture to one of data management and data-driven decision making.”